Give Les Moonves, the head of TV networks UPN and CBS, credit -- he's learned through bitter experience that with reality TV, sometimes it's best to avoid the media limelight altogether.
According to Daily Variety, UPN has finished filming its controversial reality-documentary show Amish in the City and will debut the show with back-to-back episodes from 8-10 PM on Wednesday, July 28. After the premiere, Amish in the City will air Wednesdays at 8 PM.
UPN and producer New Line Television (part of Time Warner) have kept their plans for the show under wraps since it received a disastrous reception at the Winter Television Press Tour in January. Although two of the three executive producers of the show made the critically-acclaimed documentary The Devil's Playground about the Amish coming-of-age rite called "rumspringa" (which loosely translates to "running wild"), TV critics scorned the show's lack of political correctness, and politicians quickly picked up the torch, trying to stop the show the way they stopped CBS's planned reality TV update of The Beverly Hillbillies.
Moonves failed to help his cause with the TV critics when he joked that the reason UPN was proceding with Amish in the City was that "we couldn't do The Beverly Hillbillies" but "the Amish don't have as good a lobbying group."
In the silliest twist, U.S. congressman Joe Pitts (R-PA), who represents a district with a significant number of Amish residents, compared UPN's plans for the show to "CBS’s scandalous Super Bowl half-time show" (his words) featuring Janet Jackson's breast-baring "costume malfunction." Apparently he meant that CBS and UPN would do anything to get ratings -- but we doubt that CBS gained even one viewer as a result of the unexpected antics of Michael Jackson's sister, which overshadowed a great football game between New England and Carolina.
Pitts and 50 other U.S. representatives actually put their higher mental faculties on hold for long enough to sign a petition demanding that Moonves kill the show. Perhaps the "Amish 51" might spend a few moments contemplating why their own venture into pop culture might make young people cynical about the seriousness of politics and politicians. ("Boxers or briefs?")
To permit the political firestorm to die down, Moonves and UPN simply stopped discussing the show, even omitting any mention of it from the May "upfront" pitches to advertisers. As a result, some critics of the show thought it had been cancelled. However, executive producers Steven Cantor and Daniel Laikind (The Devil's Playground) and Jon Kroll (Big Brother) quietly cast five Amish young adults (three men, two women) on rumspringa and their six "English" roommates from diverse backgrounds (three men, three women), then put them in a Hollywood Hills home for two months.
During rumspringa, Amish teenagers go into the "English" world to experience it and to test the strength of their religious beliefs. If they return, they are formally baptized into the Amish church, following the Anabaptist tradition of adult baptism from which the Amish evolved. However, if they choose not to return ... well, that's where "shunning" (called "Meidung," or social avoidance, by Amish founder Jakob Amman) comes in, because the young person is then ostracized by his or her family and home community ... which may be a large part of the reason that 90% of Amish youths choose to return home after rumspringa.
According to the producers, there was no pressure put on any of the young people to do anything but experience "English" culture during their time on the show. Some of the filmed events included the Amish and their roommates working with the mentally disabled, attending a "red carpet" movie premiere, visitng the Pacific Ocean and helicoptering to a resort island. Variety noted that the producers wouldn't confirm whether any of the Amish flew on airplanes during the show but hinted that the idea was at least discussed.
The "English" include a handsome swim teacher, a fashion-forward party girl, a colorful club promoter, a busboy/musician, an inner-city student, and a strict vegan. In the ensuing blending of cultures, the Amish showed them the meaning of a lifestyle dedicated to faith, modesty and unadorned means, while they introduced the Amish to the pleasures and problems of modern city life. (For anyone curious to learn more about the Amish prior to the show, this essay by D.R. Elder of Ohio State University provides a good primer.)
Dawn Ostroff, UPN's President, Entertainment, said, "We’re proud to present this series, which is very different than any of its reality predecessors. Foremost in our minds as we went forward was to treat with the highest respect the young Amish people who were entering a world they had never before experienced.... We believe we have succeeded in developing a program that is both serious and entertaining, and ultimately very thought-provoking."
We note that there is a succession battle shaping up at Viacom, the parent of CBS and UPN, between Moonves and MTV head Tom Freston, with the winner apparently to succeed Summer Redstone as corporate CEO. We can't help but contrast Moonves' Amish in the City, which seems likely to be a sober, mature look at a fascinating voyage of cultural discovery, with Freston's similar show The Real World, with its recent history of bar brawls and alleged rape. We think Rep. Joe Pitts might do better to cast his gaze to nearby Philadelphia ... although we suspect that he probably doesn't want to oppose Philly's own attention-craving politicians.
As a final thought for those politicians who want to "protect" the Amish from the "evil" reality-TV producers, we present this comment from Kent State University music professor Terry Miller on the "long-overdue process of 'rehumanizing' the Amish":
Although Amish and non-Amish societies live together and mingle in public arenas such as shopping centers, the latter have little first-hand and much stereotyped knowledge of the former. Because of how the Amish dress, live, and travel, they are automatically the "exotic other" in our midst, one of our own "national minorities" (to use the Chinese term), a kind of "aborigine" (to use the Australian and Taiwanese term), perhaps a rural equivalent to Brooklyn's Hassidic Jewish community. We tend to know them through the clichés of "Pennsylvania Dutch" commercialism, reduced to aphorisms in peculiar English, and through artistic motifs portraying barns, buggies, and straw hats. We admire their traits of hard work, craftsmanship, and old-fashioned values which give them, in our minds, a Romantic Herderian mystique of the pure and uncorrupted "peasant," unaffected by the pollution and alienation of the Industrial Revolution. They embody an ideal of the simple life, infused with spirituality, dignity, and "old fashioned family values." We also become confused upon encountering "wild" Amish youth filling up on "junk food," engaging in PDA, and driving buggies fitted with huge, booming speakers powered by batteries through the countryside. Clearly Amish life is much more complex, self-contradictory, and open to change than many of us may realize.
Keep those thoughts in mind while watching UPN's Amish in the City.